White Of The Eye: The Film Too Extreme For The 80s

Some 28 years on from its first release, White Of The Eye retains an incredible ability to shock.
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‘Murder Is A Work Of Art’ – it was a favourite slogan of Donald Seaton Cammell. The Edinburgh-born painter/writer/director/actor was so fond of the line that he had it stenciled onto a T-shirt. Of course, cool sounding slogans have long been integral to the film industry – how else would the PR people convince us to see the latest insipid sequel or redundant remake? For Donald Cammell, however, ‘Murder Is A Work Of Art’ wasn’t a Tarantino-esque attempt to upset the establishment while courting the youth dollar. After your first encounter with White Of The Eye you might conclude that it’s something he very much meant.

Very loosely based on a book few people ever read, White Of The Eye has been dismissed by some critics as a slasher movie. Certainly, at the time it hit cinemas in 1987, the knife-wielding psycho and his equivalents were holding sway at the box-office. But despite featuring two pretty big names – An Officer And A Gentleman’s David Keith and Raging Bull’s Cathy Moriarty – White Of The Eye withered on its release. The reason was simple; while the mantra of the 1980s might have been ‘too much is never enough’, Cammell’s film was way too extreme for the horror crowd.

So, just how big is Cammell’s blood bath? At just two killings, it’s really more of a paddling pool. The murders Cammell depicts couldn’t be further removed from the slash-happy antics of Freddie Kruger. The first is barely glimpsed, the screen filling not with geysers of gore but a series of images that can’t help but aggravate our sense of unease. A shattering jug of orange juice, a goldfish cavorting in a casserole – it’s the oddness rather than the violence that gets under the skin. And when the killer strikes again, he does so with hunting wire, a bathtub and a vanity mirror. That the end result is awful should go without saying. This, though, is an assailant with style, good taste even. It’s as the T-shirt suggests – murder might be vile, craven and debasing, but then isn’t many a work of art?

Beautifully photographed by Larry McConkey, the rock video visuals of White Of The Eye at times make it look like a commercial for homicide. Certainly the censors and the studio had their doubts about the picture’s message. But with the movie set for a similar fate to Performance - the director’s debut film which had sat on a shelf for two whole years – Cammell’s bacon was saved by Marlon Brando, a good friend of the movie’s producer Elliot Kastner who wrote to the studio demanding that encouragement be given to such an original filmmaking talent.

Some 26 years on from its first release, White Of The Eye retains an incredible ability to shock. The credit for this must in large part belong to Cammell, what with him functioning as director and co-writer (he penned the screenplay with his second wife China). That said, it’s impossible to heap enough praise upon the to-the-edge performances of David Keith and Cathy Moriarty. In Moriarty’s case, it’s hard to think how the role could be more demanding what with her playing a woman whose love for her husband transcends the fact he’s a psychopath. Keith, meanwhile, is as convincing as a doting dad as he is playing a man whose immense creative powers – he works in audio design – can only be fulfilled by taking things to the extreme. See this performance and you’ll never again watch An Officer And A Gentlemen without fearing what he might do to Richard Gere.

Add to these scintillating leading turns great supporting work from Art Evans and Alan Rosenberg (the latter playing a second, equally credible madman), McConkey’s sublime camera work and a fine minimalist score from Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason and you might conclude that White Of The Eye was forged not by one but by some. Why then insist on the film being seen as a Donald Cammell enterprise? Because only Donald Cammell, when making a movie about a serial killer, would be brave/brazen/foolish enough to include elements that verge on the autobiographical.

A sufferer of acute dissociative personality disorder, Cammell often talked about having a second persona - one he nicknamed ‘The Uncensored Don’ - that could carry out tasks that would otherwise be beyond him. As his associate Drew Hammond explains in the Chris Rodley/Kevin Macdonald documentary The Ultimate Performance (included as part of this impeccable Arrow Video release), these superpowers included the ability to sing opera in the original Italian. Now watch David Keith perform this very feat at the start of White Of The Eye and you’ll never again doubt the extent to which this boundary-eviscerating project belongs to its brilliant, bedeviled director.

White Of The Eye is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Arrow Video